When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law last April, the initial response would have led you to believe that she had made the worst political mistake of her career. Most national Republicans were silent on the bill, and a few, like Marco Rubio, were critical. A worldwide boycott quickly developed and the state, which had once decided not to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, was put into late-night comic hell. “It’s a dry fascism” was only one of the tag lines associated with Arizona.
A few weeks later, the first polls showed the public taking a decidedly pro-racial profiling stance. Six-in-ten Americans and seven-in-ten Arizonans said that the bill should be given a try. Even after a federal court stopped SB 1070 from going into effect because of its dubious constitutionality, popular support remained high.
Legally, SB 1070 may be a non-starter, but politically it was a game changer.
In the last years of the Bush administration, Arizona had been turning purple. Its Goldwater Republicanism had been challenged by smart Democratic moderates bolstered by a growing Latino electorate. The state had a Democratic governor and when favorite son John McCain ran for President in 2008 he only got 54 percent of the vote. Five of the eight congressional representatives from Arizona were Democrats, and Democrats held a number of statewide elected offices.
All of that changed after SB 1070 was signed.
Jan Brewer, who had low approval ratings prior to SB 1070 and had been girding for a Republican primary challenge, waltzed into the nomination as the hero of the Tea Party. She then easily beat the state’s once popular Attorney General Terry Goddard by 13 percent.
The Arizona congressional delegation flipped in November. Democrats lost two of their five seats. Even among the three Democrats who won reelection, two won with less than 50 percent of the vote. In other words, only one Demcorat won reelection to Congress with a majority of the votes.
The Republicans were victorious in all eight statewide races. And the Democrats were virtually driven out of both houses of the Arizona legislature.
“We’re a one-pizza caucus. So the meetings are cheap,” Democratic State Senator Kyrsten Sinema recently told Politico, reflecting the despair she felt after her party declined to just nine members of the 30-seat State Senate.
Oh, did I mention that the State Senate will now be headed by Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070? Pearce has declared the body the “Tea Party Senate.”
According to Politico, the single most important factor driving the massive Republican triumph was SB 1070.
Democrats who lashed out at the bill’s racism were successfully depicted as soft on illegal immigration. Those who supported the national boycott were described as traitors to their state. Federal intervention, successful though it was in defending the Constitution, gave rise to disturbing cries of “states’ rights” from Arizona politicians and voters alike.
Brewer’s signing of SB 1070 electrified and mobilized the Republican base. It also attracted many independent voters, who make up a third of the Arizona electorate. And, most importantly for the GOP, it did not produce the Latino backlash predicted by immigrant rights supporters. While Latinos voted overwhelmingly against Brewer in the gubernatorial election, their share of the total vote was disappointing. Latinos make up 18 percent of eligible voters in the state, but they made up only 13 percent of voters on election day.
Now that Arizona Republicans see the immigration issue as one that fires up their supporters while simultaneously depressing the Latino vote, they are getting ready to unroll a laundry list of bills attacking both undocumented immigrants and US-born Latino American citizens alike.
And other state Republican parties in the Southwest and Mountain states are looking to do the same.